Starbucks’s Pumpkin Spice Latte Got Its Start in DC

Photograph via iStock.

The pumpkin-spice latte returned to Starbucks last week, prompting the usual annual rounds of eye-rolling and excited #PSL tweets. What’s less known is Washington’s own history with regard to the PSL. In 2003, a Starbucks product manager named Peter Dukes led a team looking for a fall flavor to complement the coffee giant’s holiday offerings (like peppermint mochas and caramel brulée lattes). After three months of testing variations, he brought the drink to a few stores in DC (with Vancouver serving as the Canadian test market). The drink was an immediate hit and was added to the coffee-chain’s national menu in fall 2004.

The drink’s local origin story, though, has largely escaped notice in DC media–a Nexis search shows no mentions of it in the Washington Post before 2005, when a column on nutrition noted its high calorie count. (A 16-ounce pumpkin-spice latte with 2% milk and whipped cream clocks in at 380 calories and 14 grams of fat.) Post mentions soon became the province of Chris Cillizza, who regularly expressed his fondness for the drink in live chats. Ever since, it’s been a punch line and a punching bag, but rarely have local reporters noted its homegrown connection—except perhaps last year, when Jessica Contrera and Dan Zak described the sunrise on Election Day as “the color of a pumpkin-spice latte.”

Local coffee roasters in DC have mixed opinions on the PSL’s legacy. Joel Finkelstein, owner of Qualia Coffee, which opened its first location in Petworth back in 2009, attributes much of Starbucks’ success to the regularized use of excess sugar.

“Starbucks is definitely all about sweet and fat” Finkelstein says. “But those don’t necessarily lend themselves to complexity. I think that there’s the difference between coffee as a connoisseur beverage and then coffee as a confection. I think that that’s their bread and butter, selling coffee as a confection, a high cost, high calorie beverage.”

Meanwhile, Chris Vigilante, the owner of Vigilante Coffee Company, feels that the Pumpkin Spice Latte may have aided in the city’s shift in the past 14 years to more local, independently run cafes and speciality coffee.

“I think that the coffee scene has just gotten better. We’ve got some great brands from other cities. We also have some local folks doing some new things,” Vigilante says. “When we first started, it was just me and Qualia that were roasters. Now you have a few other guys and women. So [it’s] getting better and better, and I think Washingtonians can appreciate really good specialty coffee.”

Still, even with the influx of new, locally roasted coffee that doesn’t depend on trickery with sugar and fat, Washington is partly to thank—or blame—for the wave of basic-ness that comes with every #PSL season.

Editorial Fellow

Nehal joined Washingtonian as an editorial fellow in fall 2017. She enjoys all things food, arts, culture, and health and is always looking out for new trends. This past May she graduated from Johns Hopkins with a degree in creative writing and a minor in photography. She lives in Foggy Bottom.